“Raya and The Last Dragon” is a Walt Disney Animation Studios feature of quite a few firsts. Not only is it the first film to feature a South East Asian princess as the lead, it was also one of the first films to be released in theaters, who had closed its doors for nearly a year during the pandemic. And while everything about it deserved at least one theatrical viewing, the film is coming home to those who didn’t purchase the Premium Access on Disney+ in early March or those who chose to wait for its home entertainment release.
Long ago, in the fantasy world of Kumdara, dragons and humans lived together in harmony. But that peace was distrupted when the Drunn, a plague-like fire, spread across the land, turning everything it touched into stone. But that’s when the surviving dragons put their magic together and entrusted Sisu to use it to blast the Drunn away and restore humanity. While their plan worked, the sacrifice that was supposed to inspire unity turned out to be a fight for power as the five nations of Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail, fought over the gem believing that it would bring them prosperity.
So the gem was hidden away in the temple of Heart. And in an effort to bring that spirit of unity again, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) invited all the people of each nation to come together to negotiate terms of being a nation of one. However, his plays go awry as the rival nations discover the gem’s location and break it into pieces, thus releasing the Drunn. So Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) takes it upon herself to find Sisu and get her to use her magic to create a new gem to blast the Drunn away and restore humanity. But this arduous quest is full of peril, and Raya will soon discover that it will take more than magic and a whole lot of trust to bring back everyone she’s ever loved.
I could go on and on about the film considering how much we’ve already covered it this year, but that would be repetitive. It may be a fantasy, but much of the story is reflective of the world that we live in now. So it’s story of trust resonates on a global scale. And though I do take some issue with its casting, to be able to see and hear South East Asia in its costumes, food, landscape, music, skintone, and (in some cases) voices, it really gets to the heart of on screen representation in film.
And it goes much deeper when you look behind the scenes and see the diversity within the different teams that helped make “Raya and the Last Dragon” happen. Disney went into the film knowing full well that if they wanted to respect the culture and be authentic to representing it, they had to get it from those who not only Southeast Asian, but live and breathe understand every facet of it. And that couldn’t happen without the help of writers and producers Adele Lim and Qui Ngueyn, animators like Griselda Sastrawinata-Lemay, and the South East Asian Story Trust.
Because of “Raya and The Last Dragon’s” 2160 HD transfer, the color and textures of the film pop off the screen. The photorealistic technology adds a tangible feel to the changing environments, surfaces, fabrics, and foods, as well as the water elements like rain and rivers. The storytelling and conveyance of themes of trust come through in the color and lighting. The narrative tones shift in tandem with the color throughout the film, which helps accentuate Raya’s journey and the character drama. So as Raya starts to form a sense of trust with her ragtag crew, you can see the brightness, whereas she has a sense of mistrust, there are these darker hues within the scenes set during the evening or were more shadows as cast.
And the sound work is equally beautiful as it expresses a range of emotions that mirrors the shifting tones and coincides perfectly with the action. Unlike some of the more traditionally animated films, James Newton Howard’s composition uses Indoesian gamelan percussions to honor its culturally specific influences while also adding in contemporary synths to create an emotionally evocative piece of work that will surely excite during the action sequences or make you shed a tear during the more somber scenes.
As for the bonus features, there are quite a few to choose from, and for a film of this size and magnitude, it only makes sense of have features that honors the Southeast Asian influences that helped inspire this film. As such, you will see how food played a huge role in “Taste of Raya,” where you get to dine along with Kelly Marie Tran and the film’s creative team–virtually–over a Southeast Asian menu inspired by the countries that influenced the film as they discuss their experiences creating the world of Kumandra.
“Martial Artists” looks at the various Southeast Asian martial arts such as Pencak silat, Arnis, Muy Thai, and Đấu vật that helped shape the film’s hand-to-hand combat. Additionally, co-writer and co-producer Qui Nguyen and visual anthropologist Dr. S. Steve Arounsack talk about the weapons like the keris used by Raya and her Father, and Arnis sticks used by a young Raya at the top of the film, and the Krabi–krabong swords used by Namaari.
But the one bonus feature that truly encompasses the researching experience that helped the development of “Raya and The Last Dragon” is “We Are Kumandra.” In it, you see how the members of the Southeast Asian story trust brought the Southeast culture on screen but also helped highlight how important this representation in a Disney animated film is to the people of the region.
Here are the list of bonus features that are available on the “Raya and The Last Dragon” Blu-ray:
• An Introduction to “Us Again” – Director Zach Parrish takes you behind the scenes of the Walt Disney Animation Studios short.
• “Us Again” – An elderly man and his young-at-heart wife rekindle their passion for life on one magical night.
• Taste of Raya – Dine along with Kelly Marie Tran and the film’s creative team–virtually–over a Southeast Asian menu inspired by the countries that influenced the film as they discuss their experiences creating the world of Kumandra.
• Raya: Bringing it Home – When the global pandemic of 2020 hit, production of “Raya and the Last Dragon” moved to the houses of over 450 people. We open a window into their lives and learn how they overcame massive obstacles to make an animated feature from home.
• Martial Artists – Get a kick out of learning about the martial art forms and weapons used in the film as co-screenwriter Qui Nguyen and visual anthropologist Dr. S. Steve Arounsack share the inspiration behind the film’s action-packed elements.
• We are Kumandra – Meet members of the Southeast Asia Story Trust and discover the cultural influences that inspired the film…and how important this representation in a Disney animated film is to the people of the region.
• Outtakes – Step into the homes and behind the mics of the cast of “Raya and the Last Dragon” as they experience voice-over sessions in closets and shaky internet connections, which made recording this film unlike any other.
• Fun Facts & Easter Eggs – Take a look at some of the hidden surprises and behind-the-scenes secrets of “Raya and the Last Dragon.”
• The Story Behind the Storyboard with John Ripa – Co-Director John Ripa invites you to get an inside look at his thought process as he pitches a storyboard sequence from the film and talks about his amazing career with Disney Animation.
• Deleted Scenes:
Introduction – Head of Story Fawn Veerasunthorn introduces deleted scenes from “Raya and the Last Dragon.”
The Bridge – Raya confronts an early version of the Druun in this deleted storyboard sequence.
Escaping Namaari – See an early version sequence of an introduction to Namaari as an adult.
Dragon Blade – Discover an early version of Raya’s sword, when it used to have magical powers.
Meet Boun – Meet an early version of Boun before he was a chef and shrimp boat captain.
The Heart of the Dragon – Co-Director John Ripa introduces a deleted scene which brought the theme of hope into the film.
Overall, “Raya and The Last Dragon” is a one-of-a-kind film full of sounds and visuals that are steeped in a rich cultural that has gone underrepresented for far too long. While there may be a few flaws withing its voice casting, the animated feature tells the universal story about trust through a Southeast Asian lens. And that is a powerful thing to do. Not only does it have a story that everyone can connect to, it shines a light on the importance of representation across all mediums.
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